Playing with Ideas

The imagery of ‘playing with ideas’ is of a seated person seriously thinking about some concern or other, probably with pen and paper at hand. It does not readily go with images of physical activity in some untamed environment.

Britain’s National Trust thinks otherwise. It is keen to urge people, especially the young, to get out of that chair and away from Facebook and smart phones all of which monopolise children’s attention these days. (See The Age Saturday 14 March). It had been shocked to discover a survey showing one in ten children had never ridden a bike or regularly played in ‘wild spaces’. One in three had never climbed a tree.

It has since created the campaign “Fifty things to do before you’re eleven”. I loved reading a short list of these things: such as make a mud pie, roll down a hill, run in the rain, skim a stone, fly a kite, dam a stream, climb a huge hill, go rafting, use a map and compass, cook on a campfire, discover what’s in a pond.

This campaign does not simply achieve getting children outside and enjoying a variety of physical activities. It does that and more. Each activity stimulates imagination and curiosity: doing the activity naturally generates new ideas, and in the most direct ways, stimulate the mind – things short on the production line these days.

It would appeal to adults as well. Playing with ideas, playing ideas, ideas at play.

Don Miller


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When is a Base not a Base?

Two weeks ago the first 200 American marines arrived in Darwin. The number is due to grow promptly to 2500 in accordance with the agreement of last year. Such a rotating number will be based here for training for six months every year. Accompanying that arrangement American warships will be regularly using Darwin facilities for a variety of purposes.

Announcing that arrangement during President Obama’s short visit, the Prime Minister was obviously very pleased. She was still pleased when she welcomed the first troops two weeks ago, calling the intended joint exercises an ‘evolution’ of existing military ties. Nevertheless she felt it wise to clarify matters. “There are no US military bases in Australia, and this will not change” she firmly announced.

So, one can apparently have troops based somewhere, without that entailing the existence of a base. Of course. There is no need to check for legal usage – involving the notion of sovereignly I assume. That, is the Prime Minister’s statement is probably ‘legally’ correct. But that is irrelevant to the anticipated criticisms of the ‘basing’ agreement at hand (sic: two can play the game). The criticism is political – and it is a strong condemnation of the arrangement – whatever one chooses to call it.

Briefly, two issues are at stake: firstly, this is the worst time that Australia (or
anyone – but I think we are alone in what we do) should encourage a declining America to rattle sabres anywhere. On the contrary we should be doing all we can helping America to adopt a new sharing/multinational role, away from destabilising behaviour which can have nothing but a provocative effect in the region.

Such a willingness to share facilities also encourages America to believe Australia will continue to be a soft touch – and we now hear already about the Cocos Is. and American drones – if that goes ahead it will one day be recorded I am sure as the most disastrous foreign policy decision Australia ever made (potentially worse than Vietnam involvement).

The second objection to such friendly US/Australia agreements is that it automatically and gratuitously slaps China in the face. (a senior American spokesman has already referred to Australia as America’s only ‘ally’ in Asia – the notion of ‘ally’ has been out of service for some time). To say, as several Australian leaders have already said, that China would not take any offence from our behaviour, is naïve, irresponsible and insulting.

Politicians love playing with words as much as poets do, not necessarily to the same effect. To use words which either appropriately enhance one’s own position be that good or bad, or to demean that of an opposition, without actually lying (that, like military action is for last resorts) is the first skill honed by polies (although, before you feel sanctimonious, I must soon discuss how all humans seemingly ‘naturally’ learn to employ euphemisms in their own best interests).

Having said that I feel that the Prime Minister miscalculated about ‘bases’. She may have been ‘strictly’ right about her usage of the word, but I feel certain it was a pyrrhic victory. In fact, she does have difficulty scoring a point in most circumstances.

Don Miller

‘Life Imitates Art’ was posted yesterday at


Rumi and Freud

An exquisite exhibition, Love and Devotion: From Persia and Beyond, is on display at the Public Library, Melbourne. Illustrated manuscripts starting from the 13th century mainly from Persia are the highlight – in the most literal sense of the word – the colour and form of the illustrations are wondrous. Poetry, overwhelmingly secular in tone, by several writers of the time wet your appetite. I can understand how Rumi, a Persian Muslim poet, jurist, and mystic, has recently topped the poetry best-seller list in the New York Times (such are the vagaries of cultural tastes).

One sentence, said to be well known in the West, struck me:
“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers
within yourself that you have built against it.”

Why has that poem, and others by the same author, appealed to western tastes so much? I know why it appealed to me – I thought immediately that that sentence quite perfectly represents Freudian psychoanalysis – six hundred years before the event.

Most westerners have a notion about Freud, without likely ever having read much of his work, that it’s all about sex – in some way or other. I prefer to think that the basic issue of Freudian thought is the role of the unconscious, and the repressed, denied, forgotten hidden there. This is what distinguishes Freud’s work from what preceded, as well as so much of what follows him.

Unlike dominant western thought since the sixteenth century which firmly believes that rational, conscious thinking determines what we mostly do as mature adults, Freud insists that man is racked by conflicting demands, many of which we are unaware of, they being so deeply buried away; and that in the long run it is these unconscious factors that shape what we do. We are divided within ourselves, and our consciousness, with its intentions, play the lesser role in our lives. We, quite understandably, deny this; but this normal human process explains why it is so hard to know why we behave as we do. And why it is so hard to change our ways. We are creature of habit, whether we want to be or not.

That is Freud’s diagnosis, and his recommendation is the hand of analysis which can help us, though not necessarily successfully, discover what exactly are the particular unconscious desires and drives which force us so often to act against our best interests, and which subsequently produces so much mental pain for us.

The two writers are talking the same language: Rumi ‘love’ and Freud’s ‘sex’ run a similar gauntlet of travails and the same broad spectrum of passions.


It is commonly assumed, I think, that psychoanalysis, as a way of thinking about human affairs, and as a therapy to help heal our self-inflicted wounds, can only be a western phenomenon because ‘introspection’ is essentially only a western mode of reflection. Our literature essentially rests on the novel, which overwhelmingly is a study in individuals psychology. It is not the case elsewhere, it seems to us.

I don’t know how well that stands up to any rigorous global investigation, but it appears to apply at least to Indian culture. I have found that so from my own experience. But the testimony of Sudhir Kakar, India’s finest psychoanalyst scholar, is more powerful. He says that he has to spend nine months with new Indian patients for them to learn to be introspective, before he can begin psychoanalysis with them.

But reading Rumi presented me with a new idea. Poetry has for a long time been a mass popular culture in at least several countries, including Iran. Poetry automatically delves into the psyche every bit as much as the novel. Witness the Rumi. I am kee to explore further this insight.

In the meantime read some Rumi and visit the exhibition. And read some of Kakar’s beautifully written boos

Don Miller
to to posted on
See also posted 27-3-2012